German Defense Minister 'Russia Has Destroyed a Massive Amount of Trust'
In an interview, German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen, 55, discusses her push to deepen the country's foreign involvement, the Ukraine crisis and progress made to date by Germany's military in Afghanistan.
SPIEGEL: Ms. von der Leyen, are there times when you would prefer to be foreign minister rather than the head of the Defense Ministry?
Von der Leyen: No. I like being defense minister.
SPIEGEL: Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier has managed to take center stage in the Ukraine crisis, but the same hasn't been true of you. When you speak, people interpret it as warmongering.
Von der Leyen: That's in the nature of the office. It is of course clear that this crisis, caused by Russia, requires a diplomatic solution more than anything. At the same time, in light of Russia's military actions the defensive alliance must make clear that it is strong and united. Only those who are united and certain are in a good negotiating position.
SPIEGEL: So is the Ukraine crisis a case for defense policy?
Von der Leyen: Ukraine isn't NATO territory, but Vladimir Putin has destroyed an enormous amount of trust with his conduct. That's why we have to take the concerns of our Eastern partners very seriously.
SPIEGEL: Last week, United States President Barack Obama announced a strengthening of the American military presence in Eastern Europe. Can this contribute to finding a solution to the crisis?
Von der Leyen: I welcome Obama's announcement. It is a sign of America's engagement for Europe and the trans-Atlantic alliance
SPIEGEL: it means that Europe's military capacities will be upgraded. Is that the right approach?
Von der Leyen: The primary thing we have to do is provide security for our Eastern partners. We Germans know what it meant to live on the border of the Warsaw Pact countries. The Allies provided us with security so that a prosperous West Germany could be created. We haven't forgotten that.
SPIEGEL: Are we falling back into the Cold War era?
Von der Leyen: No. But the situation is serious. Russia has destroyed a massive amount of trust. At the same time, there are many crises that cannot be solved without Russia in a globally networked world. That's why we need to do everything we can to help Russia find its way back to a policy of dialogue.
SPIEGEL: Is Russia really a partner still, or has it become an adversary?
Von der Leyen: Currently, Russia is not a partner. Partners adhere to joint agreements. Still, it is also true that Russia cannot be allowed to become our opponent.
SPIEGEL: The Western military alliance is currently in the process of sending a military message to Russia.
Von der Leyen: NATO is the world's strongest alliance and has proven over the decades that it can adjust to new threat scenarios. Its philosophy is to use its position of strength to engage in dialogue. The hand that has been extended to Russia has to come from a position of strength.
SPIEGEL: Does NATO now need to adapt to a new threat? The Baltic states and Poland want NATO combat troops in Eastern Europe, but that would affect the Basic Treaty with Russia. What is your position?
Von der Leyen: Even if Russia unilaterally violated the document, we should still comply with it. Rules that we once created shouldn't be abandoned frivolously. They can provide the basis for a new beginning. Even a rocky basis is better than none at all. It is important for Poland and the Baltic states that NATO be able to react swiftly. It is possible to provide that already today without permanently stationed units.
SPIEGEL: Would it be possible for NATO to defend the Baltic states in a conventional way with its current positioning?
Von der Leyen: Yes.
SPIEGEL: Our own reporting indicates that politicians and members of intelligence services in many NATO member states view the situation differently.
Von der Leyen: Let me reiterate: NATO is the world's strongest military alliance. President Putin knows that NATO stands solidly behind its Eastern members. That's why he won't touch the sovereignty or integrity of these countries.
SPIEGEL: What is the Bundeswehr, Germany's armed forces, doing to contribute to overcoming the crisis?
Von der Leyen: The Bundeswehr is participating in NATO measures to provide security for the Baltic states. We are leading the NATO minesweepers in the Baltic Sea and we will also participate in the monitoring of air space beginning in September. We were the first NATO member state to come up with a concrete proposal together with Poland and Denmark for reinforcement measures in the mid-term. And we are reinforcing the Multinational Corps Northeast in Szczecin, Poland, so that NATO can react more quickly in the alliance's eastern territories. This has all been recognized.
SPIEGEL: You are planning on sending 50 additional soldiers to Szczecin, which is located right on the border to Germany and, as such, is one of the western-most locations in Eastern Europe. Is there any more to this than token politics?
Von der Leyen: There's much more behind this. We're just beginning the detailed planning. The Corps Northeast stands for NATO's ability to adapt. It is multinational, rotating and flexible. The troops continue to be distributed across Europe, but they conduct joint exercises and are prepared in emergency situations to act jointly. That is the modern NATO philosophy, which is no longer about the static stationing of large troop formations. That is an antiquated Cold War concept.
SPIEGEL: A week ago Tuesday in Warsaw, Obama warned Europeans yet again that they need to make a greater financial contribution to NATO.
Von der Leyen: The United States cannot be made to carry disproportionate NATO burdens in the long run. But many European countries have shrinking national budgets, and as such also shrinking defense budgets, because of the euro crisis. We have to stop this downward trend. More important, though, is that we use the means available to us more effectively.
SPIEGEL: Does Germany need to spend more on defense given the changing threat situation?
Von der Leyen: We have numerous challenges to meet. To do that, we need a solidly financed defense budget. How this budget will develop in Germany is dependent on economic developments.
SPIEGEL: So the defense budget will grow if the German economy grows?
Von der Leyen: That's a conversation I will first have with the finance minister.
SPIEGEL: In Germany, military buildups and deployments are unpopular with the public. Could military investments even be pushed through?
Von der Leyen: Not as an end in itself. The Germans approach this question in a very differentiated manner. They rightly ask why money is being spent and for what. Polls show that Germans support the fact that we are active in ensuring peace and freedom. That is also our approach in the alliances: We want to play a part in them. But with German thoroughness and perseverance and not foolhardiness.
- Part 1: 'Russia Has Destroyed a Massive Amount of Trust'
- Part 2: 'The US Is Still an Important Partner'